Disability a top priority for new UK development minister

Penny Mordaunt MP4
Penny Mordaunt MP, UK Secretary of State for International Development. Copyright: Wikimedia

Speed read

  • Technology ‘at the heart’ of many solutions to disability, says minister
  • TV ‘white spaces’ could help bring tool for visually impaired in developing countries
  • Disability global summit scheduled for summer 2018 in the UK

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[LONDON] The UK’s new head of the Department of International Development (DFID), Penny Mordaunt, used her first public speech to identify disability as one of her main priorities and announced plans for a global summit on the topic to be held in 2018.

“People with disabilities must have the opportunity to fulfil their true potential and to help their countries prosper,” she told an event called Solutions to Disability Inclusion in London on 30 November. “As Secretary of State for International Development, this will be one of my top priorities.”

Around 80 per cent of all disabled people live in developing countries, according to the UN, where there are often few resources to support them.

“As a department, we will put disability at the heart of everything that we do,” said Mordaunt, a former disabilities minister who was appointed on November 9.

The UK’s previous Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, resigned earlier that month after it emerged that she had held unofficial meetings with senior Israeli politicians.

“People with disabilities in developing countries represent some of the world’s most marginalised individuals,”

Penny Mordaunt

Mordaunt told the meeting that the UK’s first global disabilities summit would take place in London this summer.  It will follow a global summit on family planning organised by DFID in the UK in July this year.

“We will work with disabled people’s organisations, governments, companies and charities to find creative and lasting ways to help transform the lives of all people living with disabilities around the world,” Mordaunt said.

Caroline Harper, the chief executive of the charity Sightsavers, said the announcement shows DFID’s commitment to helping disabled people in developing countries.

“A summit on this scale has the potential to make a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities,” she said.

“People with disabilities in developing countries represent some of the world’s most marginalised individuals, and yet disability continues to be a neglected area of development.”

Mordaunt told the meeting, which was held at the UK headquarters of software giant Microsoft, that technology would be central to many of the solutions developed to empower disabled people in developing countries.

“I know that technology will be at the heart of many solutions that we create,” she said.

Hugh Milward, director of corporate affairs at Microsoft, said that one example of this was an artificial intelligence app called Seeing AI that can recognise everyday objects and describe them in spoken words.

“This is so important for people who are blind or partially sighted,” he told SciDev.Net.

Milward believes that rolling technology such as this out will be enabled by developments such as the opening up of TV white spaces — the unused bandwidth from TV channels — which could bring high-speed internet to rural regions in developing countries.

“This will really bring the high-speed internet connection that artificial intelligence requires to the world’s population,” he said.